RD Exclusive: Olga Kravtsova, former director of the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, discusses the execution of James Foley by ISIS, the kidnapping of reporters in Eastern Ukraine, and the risks of covering military conflicts.


A photograph of James Foley, the freelance journalist killed by the ISIS group, is seen during a memorial service in Irbil, 350 kilometers (220 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, August 24, 2014

The execution of American photojournalist James Foley by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) poses a big challenge not only for the U.S. government, but also for numerous non-government organizations that deal with the protection of journalists working in war zones. And that problem shows little prospect of going away, especially given the recent Twitter campaign that threatens to execute Foley’s colleague, Steven Sotloff.   

Likewise, a series of kidnappings and seizures of journalists in Eastern Ukraine by both pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian army indicate that the protection of war reporters and photographers should be among the top priorities for states and governmental agencies.     

Russia Direct sat down with Olga Kravtsova, human rights activist, former director of the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations (CJES) [which closed in 2012], to talk about the Foley case, the kidnappings of Russian and American reporters in Eastern Ukraine and the psychological risks of covering military conflicts. 

Russia Direct: The recent case of the Global Post photographer, James Foley, beheaded by ISIS, becomes a convenient pretext for some politicians and journalists to point fingers at Barack Obama and his administration. Don’t such accusations distract us from the real problem instead of solving it?

Olga Kravtsova: Politicians may be responsible for the murder of journalists and other civilians. Of course, when reporters go to a place to cover what is happening, they should be protected somehow. But the problem is complicated a bit. In fact, sometimes it’s hard to say that journalists are murdered on purpose; rather, they become victims of the war, a dangerous situation or the events that they have to cover. But in Foley’s case there is a “message” - he clearly was a target.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) annually issues an Impunity Index to monitor these types of situations and figure out how many journalists are killed, in which countries, why they are killed and how those cases are solved. According to this committee, in the last 10 years, out of 265 cases, only 11 foreign journalists were killed.

Most victims are local journalists. Of course, those organizations that protect reporters seek more safety for journalists, but in the case of local and regional conflicts, other citizens and professionals are not exceptions: They should be protected as well.

Regarding the government’s responsibility, of course, it is impossible to revive the murdered journalists, but politicians at least can do something to prevent others from being killed.      

Clearly, the Foley execution it is not just a murder. It’s a message not only to politicians, but also to other journalists to prevent them from coming to the region, because it’s too dangerous. It is really difficult to decide what is to be done in this situation.

From a humanistic point of view, you want to do your best to save people, but in the case of political decisions, the situation becomes trickier: How many other lives are on stake if you remove journalists from covering the conflict? How will you measure that? It should be decided case-by-case. 

RD: There are a series of examples where Russian and American journalists are becoming victims of the Ukrainian crisis. They are captured, humiliated, at best – released under the pressure of politicians, at worst – killed. The cases of Simon Ostrovsky of Vice News and Rossiya Segodnya’s Andrey Stenin received particular prominence. But political confrontation over Ukraine seems to overshadow the importance of the protection of journalists’ rights. Can professional organizations help?

O.K.: When Stenin went missing, journalists raised their voices to appeal to whoever keeps him. Yes, there should be a wave of professional solidarity and peer solidarity involving foreign colleagues, even though they may work for conflicting parties. Yes, there are conflicting sides, but journalists should be above this conflict. If you are a Ukrainian journalist and I am a Russian journalist, we should not be in conflict like politicians. And if my government captures you, let’s say, it’s my responsibility to speak out.

What is most difficult in this situation is that journalism standards are distorted: We see a lot of propaganda and it causes distrust between [Russian journalists working for state agencies and their foreign colleagues]. Reporters might fairly suspect that their foreign colleagues are not just covering events, but trying to influence or even distort their audience’s opinion: They see each other as soldiers of this information war. And this, unfortunately, affects professional solidarity.                  

The rally in the central square of Belgrade held in support of Rossiya Segodnya photojournalist Andrey Stenin missing in Ukraine. Photo: RIA Novosti

RD:  Are there any statistics and figures about the number of journalists killed as a result of military conflicts?

O.K.: There are international organizations that monitor these situations. The Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations (CJES) used to monitor them all the time. But it stopped its work in early 2012. Glasnost Defense Foundation, another prominent non-profit organization, continues to do this job. There is a database where the cases of murders of journalists are listed. Internationally, the CPJ and some other organizations deal with it.

RD: Geographically, where is the highest death toll among journalists? 

O.K.:  According to the CPJ Impunity Index, the list of the most dangerous countries for journalists remains relatively the same, although it changes year by year. It includes Iraq, Somalia, the Philippines, Syria, Afghanistan, Mexico, and Russia [which takes the 10th position in the recent ranking). Next time [the index is issued] we might see Ukraine in the Top 10 list of these countries.   

RD: From your point of view, why do journalists go to cover events in conflict zones, if they understand that they can be captured and killed? What are the major reasons of such a risky step?

O.K.: Although some people believe that war reporters are addicted to risk or seeking adrenaline, I don’t think it is the case given my background and expertise in psychology. Well, I cannot say for everybody, but it makes much more sense if journalists are seeking the truth, even though it might sound quite pretentious and idealistic.

They try to understand what is happening in certain regions and convey it to people, so that people can make judgments based on their information. It might be a sense of achievement: If you are an adventurous person and want to do something dangerous, but useful and meaningful in your life, you might go to a war zone to bring information to people.

It’s a matter of personal mission. After all, for some people journalism means that you are not avoiding danger, but, instead, you are running into it. And this is against our basic instincts: You are not protecting your life and running towards dangerous situations. There should be something worthwhile behind it.    

RD: Journalists covering the events in conflict zones are under pressure and stress around the clock. How to survive in such conditions and at the same time provide well-balanced high quality coverage? Should such coverage be free of emotions, or good reportage from conflict zone implies that it should be as personal and emotional as possible?

O.K.: It is difficult to answer this question in a simple way. I wouldn’t say we should be emotional. I still believe that reporters should care more about the emotions of people that she/he is filming or taking an interview of and conveying to the audience. You should still try to keep your emotions to yourself. But in very emotional situations where there is war and death, it’s sometimes hard. And when you are talking to a survivor or a person who just lost relatives, sometime it is fine, if you as a journalist, to show sincere empathy toward them, maybe even to cry. But still, try not to dwell on your own emotions. You might need to take care of it later.          

RD: As a psychologist, what advice can you give to those working in war zones?

O.K.: Before going to conflict zones it is important to answer the question why you are going there. It shouldn't be a matter of editorial assignment. It should be a grounded and very conscious decision. And if you have a sense of mission, sometimes it is easier to live through hardships.

And after coming back from the war, you should work it out with somebody whom you trust. You certainly need to talk about this experience and here come some psychological risks, because journalists normally tend to pretend not to be affected for fear of looking “weak.” It’s a matter of professional culture, which is luckily changing recently.

RD: Some journalists – when they come to conflict zones – they underestimate the risks while overestimating the romanticized aspects of covering wars, right?

O.K.: Yes. Just to illustrate, there is a nice book by the Russian journalist Yuri Romanov I Am Filming The War in which he says that, unfortunately, most journalists die due to their own lack of preparation, because they were not cautious enough. And he has very simple and useful advice when you go to a war zone: You need to be cautious, and you need to team up with someone who is experienced. There is no reason to be recklessly brave. After all, you should be mindful that a dead journalist is not a good journalist. There is nothing romantic about war.

Olga Kravtsova currently works for the Moscow-based Center for New Media and Society where she contributes to organizing psychological seminars for journalists working in war zones. Before, she served as the director for the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, and in 2012 founded the Journalism Advancement and Support Center to advocate for free, responsible and safe journalism and provide psychological support and education to reporters covering traumatic situations. Kravtsova has also been a Country Coordinator for the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma since 2007.

Kravtsova has a background in psychology, holds a Ph.D. degree from Moscow State University and has worked with different traumatized populations such as rape survivors and forced migrants since 1994. Olga has served as a trainer in the field of reporting in traumatic situations and stressful conditions for journalists in Russia and other countries.